The Narrowing Path of Climate Change

The Narrowing Path of Climate Change

Craig Dalzell – March 3rd 2022

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report. The snappily named Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group II published their views on the impacts of climate change, the scope of the global economy to adopt to (rather than avert) climate change and the limits of those adaptions. The report is huge – more than 3,600 pages – and thus cannot be adequately summarised here but the picture is stark. The Climate Emergency isn’t an exercise in merely continuing what we’re doing while adapting to a changing planet. Many areas of the world can be adapted to some degree of climate change but if we carry on with “business as usual” then those adaptations will become overwhelmed. Sea walls and levies designed for a world of +1.5C of warming will be inundated at +2C, drought resistant crops will dessicate (or, ironically, drown) regardless of that resistance, the mass extinction of local ecosystems will cause cascading effects that cannot be mitigated against. Worse, the report lays out the risk of “maladaptations”. This is where an adaptation designed for a moderate degree of warming (so far as any degree of the climate emergency can be called “moderate”) becomes a liability at higher levels of warming. For example, if a country decides to defend a coastal area with a seawall it might do so by dredging up a local wetland. This could defend a local area but end up moving the flood risk area elsewhere. The lack of a wetland now means that if the seawall fails, the failure is instant and catastrophic whereas the old wetland would have flooded more gradually. The area covered by the adaptation is now “locked in” to maintaining it forever, and the cost of that maintenance may increase without limit as the challenge of holding back the sea becomes as impossible as it was in the time of King Cnut.

But it needn’t be this way. The IPCC are clear that the window of opportunity to avoid this future is rapidly narrowing but it is still open. We can transform our economy – not into the high-growth, buzzword-driven, hypercapitalist model currently being presented to Scotland – but into one that is truly sustainable. Not one content with mere “Net Zero” and a promise to one day stop damaging the planet but to a true “Green New Deal” that repairs our share of that damage and more.

One thing that should always be remembered about the climate emergency. Its impacts are global – pollution anywhere damages everywhere – but the causes of the emergency are extremely local. They can be narrowed down to within centimetres. It’s the exhaust pipe on your car. The badly insulated roof of that house. It’s the factory there producing ever increasing amounts of plastic widgets in the name of GDP Growth. Scotland is a part of this problem. As a rich nation, we bear the responsibility for both past and present actions and a disproportionate share of the blame for global pollution. Exact figures for Scotland are difficult to tease out but the UK as a whole, with around 1% of the global population, has been responsible for 3% of total global greenhouse gas emissions – and this figure does not include emissions from then colonial subjects or emissions caused “externally” by countries who have manufactured goods that we have bought and imported.

The First Minister has rightly said that we must not ignore the warnings of this report. But we have yet to see what that actually means for the Scottish Government and their policies. They ignored us when we published a blueprint that would create a Scottish Green New Deal. They largely ignored the Scottish Climate Assembly when they called for greater actions on climate (the few actions they chose to undertake in response to the Assembly, such as funding 75 new Tool Libraries, will not have the meaningfully disruptive impact that these libraries are designed to have if they were embedded in every community). So the augurs are not well when it comes to Scotland listening to the IPCC.

And yet, there are meaningful actions that the Scottish Government could take so as to not ignore the report. Right now, the Scottish Government’s “world leading” climate targets are not sufficient to meet our share of constraining global warming to less than 1.5C. Worse, the currently stated policies of the Scottish Government are not sufficient to meet those targets. Even if every climate policy the Government has promised is enacted in full, its climate targets will be missed.

The first action should therefore be simple. Adjust climate targets to meet the science laid out by the IPCC and then publish a roadmap of policies additional to that which has already been promised that will actually get us to those targets and beyond. Where barriers such as the limits of devolution exist, publish a plan to bypass or overcome those barriers – if independence is to be for anything, surely it can be about doing our part to save the world?

One thing Scotland absolutely cannot do is continue to make things worse than they already are. The Scottish Government should commit to including a carbon statement attached to every new policy. This “carbon calorie count” would calculate the net emissions caused by the policy. It may be negative – a policy of increasing building energy efficiency would reduce energy demand and thus carbon emissions by a calculable amount. However it may be positive and where it is, the policy should also come with a mitigation plan to compensate (or more than compensate if we believe in going beyond “Net Zero”). We cannot continue to pretend that our actions are divorced from the consequences of them and simply discount the pollution caused by them as an “externality”.

As said, if we accept the cost of our current actions then we must also bear the responsibility of our past actions too. “Net Zero” is not enough as it simply says “we promise to stop polluting at some point in the future”. Scotland must become a reparative and restorative force in the world.  A positive response to the IPCC would therefore be the publication of Scotland’s net historical share of global pollution and climate damage – including estimates of embodied pollution due to imports and our relative share of the past damage of Empire and colonial endeavours. This is vital as those Imperial adventures have often left formerly conquered peoples in the position of now being simultaneously disproportionality less of the direct cause of the climate emergency, disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of that emergency and disproportionately less able to play their part in averting it. Scotland should therefore work out how much we owe the world for the damage we’ve done to it and begin work to repair that damage. Other countries must as well, of course, but if Scotland wishes to actually lead the world in matters of climate then we must be among those who step forward to do so.

In response to this IPCC report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres echoed Nicola Sturgeon by saying that you cannot claim to be green while your plans undermine climate targets and that continued abdication of leadership on the issue is criminal. Delay means death. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters. Scotland cannot continue to ignore what is coming. But while it’s easy to state that we must not ignore this report when it comes to the Scottish Government actions will mean far, far more than words. The world awaits your reply.

1 thought on “The Narrowing Path of Climate Change”

  1. The Scottish Government needs to be far more active and radical in promoting public transport and communicating the urgency of taking practical measures to get polluting vehicles off our roads. Bus travel is expensive for a lot of people. It needs to be free. Bus services have been cut back as a result of the pandemic. We need more and better buses.
    We need a public information campaign to insist that people observe the law about idling car and van engines. More campaigns to inform about all the steps people can take – reducing reliance on plastic for instance.

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